feature: Trilogies and More – why one fantasy book is never enough

Fantasy covers

Allow me to introduce the fourth volume of my Trilogy.

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Fantasy writers are given to writing multiple books about the world and the characters they create. One lady, when asked what she liked to read responded ‘Trilogies!’ What is it about fantasy in particular that demands not one book, but three or more? I googled ‘fantasy trilogies’ and got 68,200 options—there’s obviously a lot of this going on. As one tweeter put it: ‘[with a trilogy] you have more to look forward to, and you don’t waste your time searching for another good book as soon as you’ve finished one…’ and that’s certainly a drawcard. How many of us have waited for the next book by a favourite author, only to find they have wickedly written about something quite different. With a trilogy, you know what you’ll get next. Of course, a series can fulfil this need for predictability too—at Worldcon in Melbourne in September 2010, Glenda Larke explained the difference. In a series, such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse paranormal fantasies the same protagonist has a series of unrelated adventures. Terry Pratchett is perhaps the best example of all of a series writer. In a trilogy, the world and the characters proceed into a continuation of the same story, even if each volume is otherwise complete in itself.

We can be proud of our many Australian trilogy writers—at Worldcon they were out in force. For such a small population we have an inordinate number of acclaimed trilogists—Glenda Larke, who’s on her third, Cecilia Dart-Thornton, Karen Miller aka K.E. Mills, Kim Falconer, Trudi Canavan. Voyager alone has at least five more that I haven’t read yet. In 2010, Voyager whizzed out three volumes from some bright new stars—Duncan Lay, and K.J. Taylor. Now there are first books, part of promised trilogies, from Rowena Cory Daniels, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Nicole Murphy, Trent Jamieson and Mary Victoria. Indeed, we have some who follow their trilogies with sequel trilogies. Ian Irvine, for example, might be called a dodecologist, and since he has promised a sequel to the twelfth book someone will have to discover for me a Greek word for fifteen related books.

Karen Miller, Trudi Canavan and Kim Falconer come to mind too, with sequel trilogies. Readers of all three of these authors can embark on the new trilogy without necessarily having read the earlier one, since they are often presented under a completely different title. I can remember embarking on Book 1 of Karen Miller’s new Fisherman’s Children Trilogy only to find myself saying ‘I know these characters and this land!’ having enjoyed her two Kingmaker, Kingbreaker stories set in the same world. This is also true of the recently begun Kim Falconer’s Quantum Encryption Trilogy. Path of the Stray which found me straying into a prologue that made me realise it was a continuation of her Quantum Enchantment world. I loved the way that trilogy blended science and magic, and was looking forward to more of the same.

Series of related books about favourite characters have pulled young readers along with them too. It used to be said that young adult readers would be daunted by books much longer than 250 pages or thereabouts. Tell that to the Harry Potter fans—the final book in that series is a great big fat doorstopper more than twice that long! It’s interesting to line up the Harry Potters, and see them get fatter and fatter with each passing year. J.K. Rowling has often been given the credit for making a whole generation of young people eager, nay ravening, to read, but the credit must surely be shared amongst other fantasy writers. Kids seem to want more than just three stories about characters that they fall in love with—think of Felicity Pulman’s Janna Mysteries—that now has numbers five and six appearing not just as paperbacks, but as e-books as well. Thus is Felicity leading the way, which we will all follow over the next few years. Then there’s Garth Nix, with his well-loved Keys of the Kingdom series, one for every day of the week, spread over seven years. (That makes him a heptologist). The last one—Lord Sunday, was published in 2010. As with J.K. Rowling, children have grown up with the publishing of these books, eagerly awaiting the next. I often wonder what happens to ten-year-olds, in 2010, discovering the first volume of these series, and then attempting to read them all one after the other, instead of having a year’s break and time to grow up a bit between adventures. And then there’s Isobelle Carmody’s Obernewtyn Chronicles, six or eight books depending on whether you buy Random House or Penguin editions. The last volume of this saga is still in the pipeline. And what about Kate Forsyth—her historical Chain of Charms series has six books, and her current trilogy, Chronicles of Estelliana, has its third volume due in 2011. So who can argue nowadays that children and Young Adults are not reading with commitment and enthusiasm? The daddy of them all, Philip Pullman, wrote crossover novels—that is, read by young and old alike—that were the precursors to this huge expansion of the fantasy genre. Oh well, all right then, we have to mention C.S Lewis and Tolkien, too, especially as they, like Pullman, like J.K. Rowling, have now had their works turned into eagerly awaited film franchises.

One of the hardest parts of these continuing sagas must be the backstory. The second and third books of a trilogy have the same problem. How do you introduce a new reader to what’s gone before without boring your faithful fans, who know all about it? Serendipitously, just as I was writing this Trudi Canavan (tweeting on twitter) said ‘Argh. Recap. Times like these I want to only write stand-alone books so I never have to tackle re-cap again!’ Glossaries help, especially if the world and culture you have created have family trees to remember, and magical items vital to the story. I can think of Kim Falconer’s Path of the Stray that used a prologue to get us up to speed, or Karen Miller’s Innocent Mage that weaves the backstory into discussions between characters—a useful ploy used by many.

And a map, of course, you have to have a map: it helps the reader keep track. Speaking at the Melbourne 2007 Convergence convention, Ian Irvine said that he always begins his storytelling with a map; in fact his fantasy writing career began when he was ill at home, and in studying a map for work he began to fill in details of mythical climate and cities and customs and politics and so on, until he had created a whole new world of ideas.

George R.R. Martin, speaking at Worldcon 68, said that it is a disaster if you do something in Volume 1 that stymies you later—someone else on the same panel chimed up that it’s too bad if you’ve killed one of your characters off and then you need them later on after all. I suppose in fantasy there can always be an undead person roaming about, or a convenient ghost, but the reader probably won’t be fooled. The magic in a story mustn’t just be a convenience to solve an awkward problem; it has to have internal coherence and integrity. Gabrielle Lord, speaking at the NSW Writers Centre in July this year, compared making changes in the plot of a series to knitting a Fairisle jumper—change one detail and you have to go right back and rework the whole pattern.

Garth Nix, commenting on his Keys of the Kingdom series, said that because the books were spread over many real-time years, he had to go back and reread the earlier books, to make sure that the details in the new one were correct. He said his eagle-eyed junior readers would be very quick to let him know if something didn’t match up! As a corollary to that, he told me of a reader who read the last of the series and thoroughly enjoyed it, despite having read none of the others, and despite the wealth of detail from past stories it necessarily contained: yet another reason why each volume of a trilogy should be a complete and satisfying story in itself.

Are we finished with vampires? Whether you love them or not, the successful vampire series have development of character, coherent and consistent use of magical elements, and a convincing world in which the events take place. Personally I prefer Richelle Mead to the omnipresent Stephanie Meyer, chiefly because in the Vampire Academy series, protagonist Rose has to address genuine teen problems of loyalty, success in her schoolwork, whether it is okay to fall in love with your teacher—even what to wear to the prom! So although the setting is a Vampire school and the characters epitomise various degrees of vampiritude (excellent neologism, glad I invented that), teens can relate to it in their own non-paranormal dilemmas. But I suspect the feeling at large is ‘Enough, already!’ Fiona Wright from Giramondo Press assured participants at the Varuna Journey of the Book seminar in October that she had it on good authority that angels are the new vampires, so perhaps we can have some of them now, de-winged or otherwise (Don’t mention Nalini Singh!), or maybe evil elves or even zombies for a change.

In embarking on any volume of a trilogy, it’s good to know there is going to be more about this world and these people, but you don’t want to feel that you haven’t had a complete book’s worth of story in the one you’ve just bought. Van Badham’s Burnt Snow was somewhat guilty of this, ending in such a ‘To Be Continued’ way that it’s like one of the old cliffhangers in Saturday morning children’s cinema. The exception to this rule is an emerging brand of YA books which assumes, nay insists, that the reader must buy the next instalment. Chris Morphew has shown us how, with his The Phoenix Files.

Gabrielle Lord left her usual world of adult crime fiction to embark on just such a series. Commissioned by Andrew Burkett of Scholastic, he asked her to write the Conspiracy series of twelve books where the young protagonist is sent on an (almost) real-time quest to discover the meaning of The Ormond Singularity. Such was the involvement of her young readers that they would respond to a blog she set up for young Cal, the protagonist, with offers of help and sanctuary! Maybe this kind of real-time series is the way we’re heading—especially now that e-publishing lends itself to actual involvement by readers.

For a traditional Trilogy reader such as myself, I would prefer that readers buy the next instalment because they want to, not because you’ve forced them to by leaving the protagonist hanging over a cliff or some such. Readers still want to know what happens next. A delicate dilemma for authors to negotiate! Sometimes a different point of view helps. For example, Karen Miller’s shift from Rafel in the first of her Fisherman’s Children to his sister Deenie as protagonist in the second; or Glenda Larke’s exploration of different lands within her world in the Random Rain series. Ian Irvine’s sequels can involve a whole new generation of the families we get involved with.

Some readers—indeed some reviewers—won’t embark on novels in a trilogy until all three are available. I guess this reinforces my point that each volume should be a stand-alone experience, while leaving the reader longing for more. It probably explains Voyager’s habit of bringing all three books out—bang, bang bang—within a year (for example, the aforementioned Duncan Lay and K.J.Taylor trilogies). The alternative is the bringing forth of such a gigantic book that out of kindness to the reader, when they fall asleep reading it and it smacks them in the face, should have been three lighter volumes. Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings is a recent example of such a face-smacker. Philip Pullman is supposed to have said that he published His Dark Materials as a Trilogy only because it would have been too fat and heavy as a single tome. So perhaps for many writers, trilogies just happen because there is a lot of story to tell.

So, there must be four story arcs in the telling. Separate satisfactory stories in each book, then an overall arc that ties the series neatly together, and gives closure to all subplots and credible outcomes for all the characters. Our Australian champions seem to achieve this without strain.

There are three other ingredients, as well as the arc of the story, that I consider to be essential to the success of a trilogy. First, the development of the characters; second is the integrity and internal consistency of the magic; third world-building. Readers have to find the world believable, liveable in all its detail, if they are to be expected to immerse themselves in it for three books or more. It could be argued that all these qualities are essential to any good fantasy story, but I believe that a weakness in any of them is less forgivable when applied to three books instead of one.

Protagonist first, then. There have to be strong, convincing key protagonists whose characters retain coherence but evolve and grow as well—and if they have shortcomings, so much the better. Think of Duncan Lay’s ambivalent Queen, or the bratty girl who is the eponymous Radiant Child of his third book. Think of Glenda Larke’s Ryka, in Stormlord Rising, who sleeps with the enemy to protect her unborn child—there’s a fine argument for discussion! Gabrielle Lord, as Keynote Speaker at the NSW Writers’ Centre’, Festival of Writing for Children and Young Adults in July 2010, spoke of her young character Cal, in her Conspiracy series. In the space of a year (and twelve books!) he had to grow from being a dependent, insouciant schoolboy to someone capable of surviving on his wits against tremendous odds, showing the drive and initiative to carry out his quest, and having to make mature moral judgements.

Then there’s that popular trope in fantasy, to take an orphan, or a young person of lowly beginnings, and have them grow in skills, strength, and developing genetic predestination to become an adult of power and consequence. Brandon Sanderson’s Vin in his Mistborn Trilogy is an excellent example of this. She starts out as a miserable hanger-on in a gang of thieves, is discovered and trained in the use of her talents by a hero of the people, has to learn to relate to others in all walks of life, and ends up a leader, mighty in magic and in diplomatic skills. She takes the full three books to develop. Glenda Larke, in the two books so far extant of the Random Rain trilogy, has two such characters. One of them, a boy born in cruel poverty, grows to have water magic powers. These powers develop only gradually, and he must learn to overcome his miserable, uncouth beginnings. The other is an escapee from a brothel, who falls in with an artist who uses water-painting magic to foretell the future. She has to find out how to harness her own talent as she learns from him, and in the end she overtakes her teacher in the art. I look forward to these two growing into their destinies, entwined as they are, in the third volume. Then there’s K.J. Taylor’s protagonist, Arren, in her Griffin Trilogy. He’s the ultimate misfit, a dark Northerner who usurps a normally Southerner privilege of being adopted by a griffin, and then commits the unforgiveable sins of regicide and treason so that he is a hunted fugitive. Here is a convincing character who must evolve and change and ultimately embrace his Northernness.

There has to be a good premise for magic, and it must be used in ways that are convincing and integral to the story, not just flung in arbitrarily to solve a tricky patch in the plot. Glenda Larke’s Stormlords can control and manipulate the scarcest resource—water—and use it for political and religious power. Kim Falconer’s latest characters are shape-shifters, and she uses time-slips to good effect. K.J. Taylor’s griffins are characters in their own right, and have a psychology and motivation that is completely different to the humans in her stories. Sanderson’s Mistborn characters, the evil ones as well as the good, can be born with the ability to enhance their powers by imbibing various metals. This kind of integrity in the magic goes a long way to making the story live.

Thirdly there is the drawing of the culture the reader is going to live in for many escapist hours. Brandon Sanderson’s women in his new The Way of Kings have a safe-hand, always kept covered, and a free-hand for everyday doings, to the extent that you begin to think it quite rude to appear without pulling down your left sleeve. (Okay, Okay, I know he’s American, but we don’t have a total monopoly on good trilogists!). It’s this kind of small detail in everyday life that makes fantasy worlds live and breathe. Just as with the backstory, though, it is important not to bore the reader with an ‘information dump’ about what the characters eat and what work they do. The customs of a world, and its dress codes and food preferences and so on, have to come into awareness through what the characters are doing and saying. That old writer’s mantra of show, don’t tell! But the world has to have its own distinctive geography, weather, agriculture, commerce, idioms, customs, dress codes, dietary habits, social strata, religion or faith system, government…okay, you just thought of three more! So when you embark on writing your trilogy, don’t even start until you know about all those aspects of your world. You don’t have to spell any of them out, but you, the author, have to be completely cognisant of them all.

There are so many different kinds of fantasy worlds within the genre. Urban fantasy, as its name suggests, set in townships. Paranormal fantasy where the world is inhabited by species other than human, or maybe dead people. (eg Death most Definite by Trent Jamieson). Fantasy about fictitious royal families, that’s popular. And many fantasies are set in quasi-mediaeval worlds, often rural, involving peasants and knights and ancient wizards and wise women. We do love a good mediaeval setting, but save me from ones where the protagonist, and especially cannon-fodder peasants, talk in a kind of ‘Olde Englishe’. Of course that is part of the ongoing controversy in any kind of writing, as to whether you attempt to spell out idiosyncrasies of accents, or just tell the reader a character is Scottish or orc or something and leave them to provide the details of the voice. I prefer to be helped along with words such as guttural, or shrill, or something descriptive such as ‘He spoke with unmoving lips, and a slight lisp’ than to struggle with someone’s effort to phoneticise an accent. That’s the one thing I find really irritating about Dickens! But I digress.

Last but not least—what about the covers? Should a series or trilogy have matching covers for each book so that they establish a ‘brand’? I’m always disappointed when I’m sent a review book in a plain cover. Even if the proof copy later has something completely different in its final form, I do like to get an idea of how the book is going to catch the browser’s eye. I have to say I’m very tired of black, white and red all over, especially if the red involves luscious lips with or without fangs or blood. There can be recurring devices such as a scene contained in a circular frame (Glenda Larke’s Isles of Glory) or a distinctive pattern on the spine, such as Robin Jarvis’s Tales from the Wyrd Museum which has the author’s name in shiny letters and a distinctive lozenge with an image from the story. This kind of eye-catching spine is good for bookshop browsers. Brendon Sanderson’s books have standout white covers with a blue sketch on the spine—as well as being fat! So they catch the reader’s eye and are intrinsically beautiful to look at. In the matter of covers, the author doesn’t have that much say, and the same book can come out at different stages in its career with an entirely different design. Are you listening, publishers? We like our trilogies to have some continuing element in their covers, especially their spines, so that we can spot them in a flash when they finally turn up in our bookshop or library. As I wrote this, Garth Nix put up a photo on Facebook of a new boxed set of his seven Keys of the Kingdom, similar spines neatly aligned. Brilliant!

I think it sad that this genre is stuck with the label ‘fantasy’, because it smacks of elves and fey happenings. I’ve even heard it said that fantasy is lazy writing because it needs no research. I mentioned this to Garth Nix when interviewing him and he laughed, and said that was just silly, adding that writing fantasy might involve all kinds of research including learning an ancient language. He said there is no such thing as a lazy writer of a novel, since any novel involves so much work. Three times as true of trilogists! I recently read The Wedding Shroud by Lisa Storrs in which she recreates in intricate detail the lives and times of early Romans and Etruscans, and I was struck by the similarity to the creation of their worlds by fantasy writers. That brings me to the often mentioned theory that all fiction is fantasy, since all stories are works of the imagination. I think I subscribe to that one, and constantly proselytize about fantasy. Fantasy stories can explore all the big issues of human lives and interactions every bit as authentically as any other genre.

As a greedy reader myself, I want there to be at least three books about some new world I’m diving into. I suspect it’s a strong feeling for the authors, too—having lived and dreamed a new culture, it must be hard leave it too soon. I have nagged Glenda Larke about her only stand-alone book, Havenstar. It disappeared arbitrarily from the bookshops when its publisher folded, and it just yells for more information about that strange land with its shifting unstable countryside.

Perhaps there’s a kind of organic imperative that says one book is never enough in a good fantasy. To put it a different way—if the reader, after experiencing the first book, begs and says ‘Let me live there just a bit longer, please!’ and suffers a kind of homesickness if deprived, then what they have read has all the makings of a Trilogy.

I have confined myself in this article to works that I have read, focussing especially on the 2010 output. Of necessity, one person can’t possibly read everything that’s around, so if important works are not mentioned—well, I hope to get to them soon!